One of the great parts about visiting somewhere exotic is getting to try new foods. Chinese food is not exactly new to most of us in the US, but Chinese food here and Chinese food there are not the same thing at all. Not to mention, the whole “food experience” in general is extremely different.
Chopsticks are the most obvious, visible difference. Fork and spoon are rarely presented as options. I am clumsy with the chopsticks (though getting better pretty quickly), and my host D has teased me all week about how i could ask the server for a spoon so i could eat more easily. Every time i tell him “NO!” and he laughs at me. I expect to be a pro with chopsticks by week’s end.
It took me two days before i stopped asking this question – “are we sharing dishes the Chinese way?” The answer is Yes, always yes. There is no other way. The Chinese custom is to order several dishes which are placed in the center of the table. Then each person uses their chopsticks to pick up food a bite at a time from the community dishes. Sometimes each person is given a small bowl of rice or noodles for themselves, and then you might pick up one bite of a dish, then also grab some rice from your bowl. I like the sharing aspect. It was just so abnormal for me that i kept asking about it at first. Also, reaching across the table to get something seems rude to me, although that’s what everyone does so i do it.
Drinks seem to be rarely served. More common is that no one orders drinks at all. In one restaurant on the first day, my host asked me what i wanted to drink and i said “bottled water.” Either he misunderstood me or there was none available. In any case, what we ended up with was boiled water. Yes - steaming hot boiling water, served in an everyday water goblet that americans would usually get ice water in. I looked around and other tables seemed to have the same boiled water, and my host did not seem to think it the least bit strange. So i went with it. It was difficult to even lift the glass at first, because it was too hot to touch.
My colleagues are aware that Americans often get soft drinks with meals, and have tried to cater to me in that regard and offer to get me Cokes all the time at lunch. However, there is no ice here. And while i do enjoy a nice Diet Coke, i do not relish a Diet Coke with no ice in this place, where the temperature is always just a little too warm anyway. So at first i declined any soft drink and just asked for water. Then i had the boiled water experience. Another time my request for water was simply ignored. So i’m starting to think that i should just manage without drinks at meals.
More on the water situation: I have been warned not to drink the water here, and also warned that it is very common for traveller’s to be afflicted with an ailment known as “traveller’s diarrhea.” (I assume this is due to eating unfamiliar food and maybe drinking unsafe water. So far i am fine. I’d like to think that if it hasn’t hit me yet, then i’ll be OK.) I simply do not understand how a city this size does not have a city-wide solution to the bad-water problem. How come the government does not treat the water supply? It’s not as if the Chinese people drink the water and only foreigners have to be careful – those that live in the city do not drink it either.
One other weird food thing – at one meal, a shrimp dish was ordered. Now, i like shrimp, and this was quite good, if a little spicy. The shrimp were served mixed with vegetables and sauce, with the skins still on them. I thought that was a bit strange, but proceeded to try to peel my shrimp. This is impossible to do with chopsticks alone, so i made a huge mess attempting to peel shrimp with my hands. (Another thing about China – napkins seem to be scarce, or Kleenex are used instead.) While i was peeling, my host took the first bite of the shrimp and just ate his whole shrimp, skin and tail and all. Surprised, i asked if this was normal, and he said yes. So i tried it. As expected, it was crunchy. And kind of gross. I kept peeling the rest of my shrimps, mess be damned.
For breakfasts i have stayed with fruit and toast. Every lunch & dinner has been different, and most of them have been excellent so far, despite the oddities. Pork is the most common meat here. But i have had mixed comments/warnings about the pork, and so far i have not eaten much of it. Tonight we are going to a popular restaurant to eat Peking Duck, one of the famous dishes of the city, i am told. I’m nervous because i have found out the dish is basically the SKIN of a roasted duck. But, i also hear that westerners tend to like it.